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October 3, 2011
Dissecting a comeback: Five plays that stood out

1. Justin Smith's strip show. This is the play that prevented the 49ers from becoming the foil to the hero. You know what I mean. Two years ago, Brett Favre threw a last-second touchdown pass in Minnesota to beat the 49ers, a play that was replayed ad nauseum that year. Last year, Nate Clements had a chance to be a hero in Atlanta but let Roddy White steal the ball and the spotlight. Just two weeks ago, injured Tony Romo performed his own last-second heroics against the 49ers, who too often have been the team in the background of highlight reels.

SmithStrip.jpg

Michael Vick and the Eagles seemed to be poised for another such situation. Vick already had led the Eagles, trailing by a point with 2:15 left in the fourth quarter, 31 yards to the San Francisco 49 when he threw a well-conceived screen to receiver Jeremy Maclin. The receiver stumbles initially, but starts heading up the sideline while gathering a head of steam. What he doesn't count on is Smith pursuing him from his right defensive end position. The 290-pound Smith tackles Maclin with his right arm but uses his left arm to poke the ball free. Safety Dashon Goldson, the only player between Maclin and the end zone, recovers it, and the 49ers are able to salt away the win.

"The play that Justin made was just a hustle play," Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "I can't say enough great things about him. He's ... what I think about when I think about John Wayne. He is a John Wayne kind of guy around our building here."

2. How sweep it is. The 49ers are trailing by six points late in the fourth quarter and are facing a critical 3rd and 7 situation. The Philadelphia crowd senses the importance and gets loud. Harbaugh says afterward that he was prepared to go for it on fourth down. It never came to that. Alex Smith takes the handoff and pitches the ball left to rookie Kendall Hunter, who gains 14 yards. On the next play, Frank Gore scores the go-ahead touchdown.

Hunter has a convoy of blockers, including wideouts Josh Morgan and Michael Crabtree, who take their opponents downfield, as well as tackle Joe Staley and guard Adam Snyder, who was very active at right guard. He also gets a good initial block from Vernon Davis, who walls off the linebacker at the start of the play. But mostly it's just a solid play call by Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The Eagles are expecting a pass and they rush up field, which leaves the perimeter open for Hunter. He doesn't encounter a tackler until he is 10 yards down the field.

alexsmith2.jpg

3. Alex Smith at the Improv. The 49ers had just gone down 23-3, their largest deficit of the game, early in the third quarter. Facing 2nd & 6, Smith is flushed to his right and it appears as if the play will collapse. However, he and Hunter ad lib a play and Smith throws across his body to the rookie tailback, who takes off for a 44-yard gain. It was a nice piece of improvisation from a quarterback who rarely does that, and two plays later he fired a bullet on a slant pattern to Joshua Morgan for a 30-yard touchdown. Smith beat a blitz on the touchdown play, something he has done with regularity this season. That score sparked the 49ers comeback. One quibble: Hunter cuts back inside where he is tackled by the Eagles cornerback. Continue to the outside and he may have had a touchdown himself.

4. Crabtree into the deep. The 49ers proved that the Eagles weren't the only team that could connect deep down field on their ensuing possession in the third quarter. On first down at the San Francisco 23, Crabtree goes in motion from the right to the left side of the 49ers' formation. Smith drops back five steps and pump fakes down the middle to freeze the safety. Meanwhile, Crabtree has put a move on cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha that makes the pro bowler stumble, and Crabtree has two steps on him. Crabtree makes a couple of moves after the catch and ends up gaining 38 yards, his longest of the season. Four plays later, Smith finds Davis on a mismatch with inside linebacker Jamar Chaney. Davis scores a 9-yard touchdown and the comeback is officially real.

5. Spies like us. Earlier in the week, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had been asked about using a player to spy on the elusive Vick. Fangio said there was always that option if Vick was hurting the 49ers on the ground but that he downplayed a spy's effectiveness, noting that even if a linebacker is shadowing Vick, he's still awfully hard to bring down.

The play in question occurred on the Eagles' offensive series that came between the 49ers' two third-quarter touchdowns (above). Vick indeed had been bludgeoning the 49ers on the ground. He already had picked up 69 rushing yards and was facing a 3rd & 3 from the Philadelphia 28. Bowman was definitely a spy on the play. When Vick dropped back and didn't find an open receiver, he took off to his right. Bowman trailed him out of the 49ers defensive backfield. When they met, Vick tried to accelerate to the outside, a maneuver that usually leaves defenders in his wake. Bowman, however, wrapped his arms around the quarterback's left ankle and hauled him down for just a one-yard gain. The Eagles went three and out, their only three-and-out series of the second half.

*******************
I'll be hosting a chat at 10 a.m. to talk about the Eagles, the Bucs, the division, life, love, that Survivor is looking like a dud -- anything you want. I know. I know: you're supposed to be working at 10 a.m. But, hey, how many times is Alex Smith nominated for FedEx "Air" player of the week?! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may ... www.sacbee.com/live.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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